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Minority activity online demands increased access

As much fun as we have with our faster speed, higher bandwidth mobile connections, the possibilities for entrepreneurship and education are even greater.
 Jamal Simmons

Five years ago, nobody was downloading music, tweeting photos or playing Angry Birds from their cell phones, but today all of those things are commonplace – and no one knows what advances are coming next. As much fun as we have with our faster speed, higher bandwidth mobile connections, the possibilities for entrepreneurship and education are even greater, as long as everyone has the same access to reliable, high-speed Internet connections.

According to a Pew Internet and American Life Project study, almost two-thirds of African Americans and Latinos access the Internet through a mobile device or laptop, more than any other group. These devices require wireless broadband and unless the Federal government and America’s wireless phone companies strengthen the telecommunications networks Americans use, the information overload on the system will slow Internet use to a crawl. For those people still waiting for high-speed wireless access in rural communities, the wait could get even longer.

President Obama’s Federal Communications Commission has proposed a broadband plan that will reallocate spectrum and expand infrastructure to increase broadband coverage to 98 percent of the population. A proposal before the FCC and the Department of Justice could help the President accomplish that goal. A crucial byproduct of AT&T’s request to acquire fellow wireless provider T-Mobile is expected to be a beefed-up version of AT&T’s originally conceived 4G Long Term Evolution, or LTE, network. Newly envisioned by the combined T-Mobile/AT&T, the system will reach a total of 97.3 percent of all Americans and cover an additional 1 million square miles.

The result for underserved African-American communities will be a faster network with greater capacity, delivered with better service. Improvements like these are made possible thanks to increased density of AT&T cell towers – helping to eliminate the problem of “dead zones.”  The merged company will also combine and more efficiently take advantage of available spectrum – space in the electromagnetic field that’s usable for wireless information transactions – allowing for heftier data downloads and uploads.

For underserved communities, these changes translate directly into opportunity.

Businesses can use improved mobile broadband access to innovate, introduce efficiencies, expand their customer bases, attract new revenue streams, and create new jobs. Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, cited this potential in a recent statement. “Information and communications technologies industries provide one of the most extensive job and entrepreneurship opportunities for black and urban communities,” he said.

Morial noted that just 42,000 minority businesses were in the information sector, saying, “Triggering minority participation in technology industries is critical for robust, long-term recovery.”

Newfound access also introduces underserved communities to newfound educational opportunities and resources from all over the world. Online education, for example, is a vital option for students who want to attend college but lack the funds or the flexibility to enroll at traditional campuses.

Additionally, children in middle and elementary school can live stream educational videos and  play learning games like those provided on PBS Kids’ or National Geographic Kids’ sites.  Children in Memphis could study art from a museum in Paris or take lessons from an instructor in Johannesburg without ever leaving home, challenging them in ways today’s public schools seem ill-equipped to do. Fostering kids’ excitement for learning from an early age can help us prevent hiccups in their education later on. The more challenged and stimulated these young people are, the more likely they will finish high school and have the chance to compete for better jobs or start a company of their own.

From gaming to education, buying music to seeking out business opportunities, African Americans have a proven hunger for the online world that is only expected to grow.  Making sure America continues to provide reliable high-speed access to the Internet for all of her citizens is one of the keys to providing more opportunities for everyone.

(Jamal Simmons, a regular presence on cable and network news, worked for President Bill Clinton and played a major role helping to elect Barack Obama President of the United States. He currently co-chairs the Internet Innovation Alliance, which focuses on expanding broadband to underserved communities.

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